“Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.” — Tennessee Williams
Here’s a trick question for readers savvy to the “local” geography of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. (Readers who think the Yukon shares a common border with Greenland can just skip this part.)
Which of the following, A or B, is nearer to the northeast tip of Great Slave Lake, (i.e. the area where I live, around the outlets of the Hoarfrost and Lockhart Rivers, and Fort Reliance)?
A) The southwest shore of Great Slave Lake, just west of Hay River.
B) The Arctic Ocean, at Bathurst Inlet.
Since I set it up as “tricky,” I suppose I gave it away. The answer is B.
The southwest corner of Great Slave Lake, where the current of the Mackenzie / Deh Cho becomes perceptible and flows west out of the lake, is 430 kilometers or 267 miles from here, as the raven flies. Answer “B,” the nearest saltwater shore of the Arctic Ocean, is almost due north of here, at just 400 kilometers or 248 miles.
Surprised? I am not surprised, but I admit to having an unusual perspective on this, since I have often flown straight north out of here and covered that distance to the nearest tidewater in around two hours, landed, done some work, jumped back into the plane and flown home again. Probably almost as often as I have taken off for Hay River, direct, or for quiet little Fort Providence, on the Mackenzie’s north bank.
Even now, after decades here, our relative proximity to Canada’s third coast still excites me. I have touched down in a small floatplane on the surface of Bathurst Inlet on many a bright summer day, taxied in to shore, tied up, and just leaned down for a sniff and a taste of that salty water. On those memorable days I have stood for long moments gazing north down the Inlet toward the Northwest Passage and thinking, Wow, the ocean. Every continent in the entire world is accessible by water, from right here. Pretty heady stuff for a perennial small-town Illinois boy.
On the 21st of March, our two daughters and their good friend Joe whooshed out of the dogyard onto the ice of McLeod Bay, and within minutes they had disappeared from sight around the headland and into Gyrfalcon Cove. Three sleds, three mushers, and 21 carefully-chosen huskies (some chosen for talent and athleticism, others to boost morale, and at least one or two mostly to provide comic relief, I gather.) From here they had a trail already broken for 26 miles, up to the first hints of tree-line along the upper Hoarfrost. In the sleds, and a few miles up the trail, they had a total of nine days of supplies to bring them to their first re-supply cache.
In around three weeks, they hope, they will reach the south tip of Bathurst Inlet, that salt ice I started out discussing here. From there — this is the best part, I think, since it is pretty unusual nowadays — they will simply turn around, head into the sun and the oncoming warmth of spring, and set their course right back here to where they started. May first is the target date for homecoming, making it a six-week journey. You might see the fireworks and hear the whooping and hollering from anywhere within a few hundred miles, when Kristen and I first glimpse the mushers and their teams rounding that home point again. It’s gonna be a party, especially if they succeed.
It is wonderful that sometimes in our brief lives we are lucky enough to see the next generation take up some of our own various torches: torches we might have fumbled, or dropped, or simply left behind us along the way. With youthful pizzaz, they grab the flames and trot on ahead, literally or figuratively. Forty years ago I spent an entire summer camped out just a few miles from where I now live, and on some of my evenings alone that summer, or talking with my buddy Mitch, I pored over the map and imagined the journey that my kids and their buddy are now taking. But I only talked about it; I never hooked up the dogs and loaded the sled and did it. It’s their time now, and off they’ve gone. “So long, old-timers, see you in six weeks.”
The route is straightforward. I daresay that at this time of year, with a good string of huskies behind a gifted lead dog, a musher could go to the ocean and return to McLeod Bay without ever once looking at a map. (Don’t worry, Mom, they brought maps.) In a nutshell, the route is north-northeast, steadily on a heading of about 16 degrees True. Up the Hoarfrost to its headwaters, then over onto the watershed of the Lockhart and into the north arm of Aylmer Lake. There a low gravel ridge forms an unremarkable watershed divide, and beyond it you are northbound onto the first trickles of the Back River. Downstream, north-northeast still, to where the Back swings east in a big oxbow at Beechey Lake. Leave the Back there, and climb away from it to cross some rugged high tundra and esker country. (It is “high” only by barrenland standards, the maximum elevations being 1660 feet (500 meters) above sea level.) Pick up the drainage of the Western River, and avoid its canyons and falls as you parallel it down to — the Arctic Ocean!
It sounds easy if you say it fast.
And is this creaky pension-plan dog musher just a tad bit proud of these youngsters and their dogs? Well, is the Pope Argentinian? Those aren’t trick questions. Yes. Yes.